Marine Biology

Squids may Hold Key to Invisibility



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Invisibility seems all the rage the past ten years. A variety of different approaches are being investigated including optics, laser diffraction, chameleon type metals and fabrics that wrap light around them and projected image technology that the British are working to perfect hoping to render their tanks and soldiers invisible to an enemy on future battlefields.

Yet of all the projects working to achieve what was once considered an impossible dream, none approach the simplicity—or high strangeness—of adopting the squid's ability to disappear and transforming it into military technology.

Squids might make military disappear

No, it isn't quite the answer that John Lennon sought, warriors that disappear will still be there, they'll just be darn hard to see.

In a collaborative effort scientists at Duke University, the University of California, Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute and the famous the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego have joined forces to research exactly how squids, octopi, and cuttlefish utilize their unique light-sensitive organs and cells to manipulate light—creating fractal mosaics called "dynamic camouflage."

Sönke Johnsen, an associate professor of biology at Duke University and part of the invisibility project describes how the cephalopods' camouflage works. "They make color sort of the way soap bubbles do…but the neat thing about it is they can actively control it."

Johnsen has gotten a $7 million plus grant on the project named: “Dynamic Camouflage in Benthic and Pelagic Cephalopods:An interdisciplinary approach to crypsis based on color, reflection, and bioluminescence.” In layman's terms, he's studying the mechanics and potential applications of invisibility.

The squid, octopus and cuttlefish all have the ability to change their color and blend into the background whether what's behind or under them is coral, rock, kelp, even blotches of algae. Most species of octopus do the cuttlefish one better. They can also mimic the texture of the environment they're hiding in—and if they move, their camouflage changes to maintain their invisibility.

Cephalopods use their innate ability to change their appearance to escape detection, hide, lay in wait for prey, and attract potential mates.

The United States Navy thinks enough of the idea to invest $5 million of their own money in the project. They believe that dynamic camouflage can be adopted for naval military applications.

Over the next five years, Johnsen and the rest of his team will intensively study cephalopod chromatophores to discover exactly how they work. Chromatophores are minuscule sacs of ink that can literally paint the animal with an ever-changing, living tattoo. Pigments are released in patterned layers under the creature's skin controlled by their brains which are some of the most intelligent underwater.

Cephalopods could "probably play a television show on their backs, if their brains were big enough," Johnsen laughs.

The team has already issued a number of studies. Some are classified.

One that isn't hush-hush states: "The systems evolved by marine animals in order to hunt, hide and mate over hundreds of million years surpass our contemporary engineering designs for underwater vehicles. The impact will hopefully affect all branches of the armed forces that have aquatic missions. This includes Special Forces, mine hunting vehicles, the submarine community and a newest generation of underwater vehicles that could all benefit from the option of 'stealth.'"

The collaborators are receiving funding from just about every quarter. Other than the Navy interest, giant defense contractor Raytheon is helping to fund the project and so are the U.S. Army and the Pentagon's DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

How much money is available beyond the initial $7 million grant, only those working on the semi-secret project know for sure.

They're not talking.

But the project is being funded for at least five years and if solid progress is made there's more money available to assure success.

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